I’m bored, gonna blog. I am still on my summer break, which was already curtailed by an extended spring semester due to the Dread Virus Covid-19, and must fill my time somehow.
While killing time (the only thing I like to kill, aside from mosquitos) perusing my social media feed, I came across this little advert:
Does this not strike anyone else as suspicious? “Replika is the first AI companion you create who’s always there to talk & listen.” Emphasis on ‘listen,’ no doubt. They should call it “Big Buddy.” Go on, tell Big Buddy all about your friends and coworkers! Be sure to mention any political or religious group affiliations. “Oh. My. Gosh. I. Cannot. Believe. Your. Coworker. Daniel. Said. That. And… what is Daniel’s blood type?” Russia’s behind this, aren’t they? It got me to wonderin’, of all of the fun conspiracy theories out there on the interwebs these days, HOW has no one picked up on this intrusive AI? And that got me to wonderin’ about conspiracy theories in general.
Now, not to pull academic rank on anyone, but I wrote my master’s thesis on the topic of conspiracy theory. More specifically, conspiracy theory as literary theory. Yes, I went to grad school, and like the idiot I am, I selected a major in the humanities — English Literary Theory and Criticism. I know, right? The minute you apply for a student loan for that, they should deny you the loan and take away your driver’s license. But there I was, all wrapped up in my Chaucer and Dickinson, and the big question in those academic circles at the time was, “What comes after post-modernism?” You see, in literary theory, we have formalist, feminist, psychological, deconstructionist, historical, post-colonial, et cetera, et cetera, right up to post-modernism, and beyond that… well, when I left, they were still debating it. I threw in my two cents with conspiracy theory, because, as the title of this piece suggests, I love a good conspiracy theory. At the time, back in the early aughts, most of the popular conspiracy theories centered around the Kennedy assassinations (because there were TWO, if you’ll recall) or a government cover-up of an extraterrestrial presence. If you dug a little deeper, you got into the works of Jim Marrs, William Bramley (a pseudonym) and David Icke, and that got you down to the Reptilians, where things really got weird.
If you have been paying attention to current events these days, then you are aware of an umbrella conspiracy theory known as “Q-Anon,” which was started by some pathetic homebodies on 4-Chan who wanted to sound like they knew something. Q took all of these old conspiracy theories and bundled them together in a right-wing narrative and then used them as a foundation for posting his own Nostradamus-esque gibberish-encoded messages (which his devout cult followers call “droppings”… no, “crumbs”). None of his base ideas are original, and none of his original clues or predictions have come true. Yet there he or she (ze?) is, still posting gibberish that is still being decoded in various ways by the faithful. I use the term “Nostradamus-esque” because, like the writings of Nostradamus, they are so vague they can be retconned to fit almost any narrative that occurs in the media.
I won’t get into why Q is bullshit as I have already written about this topic several times on this blog. Instead, I would like to take several moments to talk about conspiracy theory itself. However, as Q is the dominant conspiracy hogging the headlines in today’s virus-ravaged world, I will use it as an example:
Conspiracy theory is akin to information theory, which is essentially the search for a signal in white noise. Conspiracy theory is just another way to search for a pattern or meaning, and can be applied to any topic – literature, film, history, current events, etc. The only distinguishing characteristic of conspiracy theory is that the signal must be secret, encoded for only a privileged few, or open to everyone and just misunderstood by the lesser minds of the world. Its appeal is in making the ‘believer’ feel not only that the world makes sense, but that they are somehow special in knowing how it makes sense. I like to use it to find hidden plot lines in literature, whether intended or unintended by the author. There is some great conspiracy lit out there, from Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49 to Don DeLillo’s White Noise to Haruki Murakami’s A Wild Sheep Chase, but it works for every genre. The Bible has lent itself well to it for centuries. Dan Brown is a hack, but I enjoy his popcorn books, too.
For real-world usage, conspiracy theory is, of course, not all bullshit. Some of the signals are genuine and carry substantial meaning. They change history, ignite wars, kill any number of people, and imprison others, falsely or not. So to equate “conspiracy theory” with “bullshit” is a dangerous and egregious error, and, sadly, one the mainstream media makes all too often. Conspiracies do exist, they do happen, and history is dotted with them, the successful and unsuccessful alike. But there is a lot of gibberish out there, especially in this day and age, and a lot of people mistake the gibberish for a message. It helps people cope with a world out of control. It reminds me of a toss-off book by one of my all-time favorite conspiracy writers, Robert Anton Wilson. The title is Everything is Under Control, and it examines real-world conspiracies. The word play is what makes the point: People need to feel that everything is under control – even if it is the control of an evil cabal, at least they can find patterns and feel like they can map the world into a sensible, predictable plot line, and maybe even cast themselves as one of the heroes. Still, everyone has their own interpretation. The narratives of false conspiracies are rarely constant below the main ideas, and often splinter off into their own narratives. Q-Anon is not consistent below the main umbrella idea that the Democrats are freedom-hating pedophiles and Trump is the guy taking them out (have you seen the Jim Jefferies Q episode?). Some Qultists believe JFK Jr. faked his death and is behind it all, and Trump is just working for him. Some say Trump is working with Mueller, others say Mueller is a Democrat dog. Take Trump’s recent comment on Ghislaine Maxwell, “I wish her well.” That is being interpreted in many ways today. Some of the Q-cult think it’s a code, of course, that Trump was saying he hopes she remains alive to testify (or giving a direct order not to kill her). Others say he still thinks of her as a friend, and as she has not yet been tried, he still considers the possibility of her innocence. Personally, I think he is just an idiot who speaks without thinking.
Q-Anon claims to decode Trump’s blathering. ‘Q’ (who is any troll in a chat room at this point) drops ‘crumbs,’ clues that claim to hold the meaning behind Trump’s seemingly random words and actions. These can be deciphered by followers in any number of ways. Every time there is a ‘crumb drop’, the narrative splinters again as it is interpreted according to each interpreter’s own needs. My main question when I encounter Qultists is, “If that is what Trump is saying, why doesn’t he just come out and say it? Why doesn’t he just blow the lid off this whole thing right here and now, instead of constantly allowing the media to make him look like a demented idiot?” Of course, the common reply from the Q-ists is, “He’s waiting for the right time — think October Surprise!” And so I cannot wait until November. The Q-ists have been predicting Trump will spring the trap since he took office, and somehow, the date keeps getting pushed back and the trap never gets sprung. I guess he is waiting until the 59th second of the 11th hour?
Conspiracy theories are popular for the same reason Dan Brown’s books are popular, or a detective story, or a thriller film with a surprise ending, or even jigsaw puzzles are popular: The human brain derives pleasure from finding patterns and signals in the white noise of the world. They are not always make-believe, either (although Q most certainly is). Have you ever read about the Business Plot of 1933? The Tuskegee Airmen? MK-Ultra experiments? Or how about this little gem right from today’s headlines regarding a conspiracy to steal the 2020 election? The list goes on. And this is why we cannot allow nutters like the Q-Qabal to paint all conspiracy theories as bullshit. If we do, it is at our own peril. Q, at best, is just some lonely fella sitting in his mom’s basement, trying to make some friends on the internet. At worst, it is an orchestrated effort to get people to stop looking for patterns of conspiracy so that the conspirators can pull of one mother of a twist in the mainstream narrative and enslave each and every one of us by stealing the election or starting a civil war or perpetrating some other heinous activity. In this scenario, Q takes popular conspiracy theories and politicizes them to create a successful model of the old divide-and-conquer scheme. If the latter is the case, then the Qidiots that follow this scheme are playing right into their hands. Be sure to explain that to the Q-Anon fan in your life. Is there an elite ring of pedophiles in organized religion, entertainment, and politics? To be honest, YES, the evidence certainly seems to indicate that there is. But the Q-Anons of the world do nothing but muddy any serious investigation and make it ridiculous, so their nonsense is more to the benefit of such an evil network rather than its detriment.
In fact, If I was operating a network of child sexual slavery that ran through the top echelons of society, and the public was starting to catch on due to repeated accusations from victims getting media attention (say, the numerous victims of the Catholic Church), I would create a mysterious whistleblower to act as a red herring and throw the investigators into doubt. I would base my misleading claims on time-tested conspiracy theories that have been around since before the dawn of the internet to give it some legitimacy. I would tie it to a brainless nitwit political outsider who defies all odds to become POTUS to harness his cult-like following of morons. Then I would keep posting vague ‘predictions’ that could be interpreted in any number of ways to fit the current event narrative in order to distract people from my operation and give the media a reason to dismiss any claims against my child sex trafficking network as “crazy conspiracy theories.” It would also convince the converted that “something was being done.” I would give it a mysterious name, like ‘Q’ (because I’m a Star Trek: TNG fan). Odds are, some of my ‘predictions’ might even appear to be accurate in hindsight because they can be retconned to fit anything — and even if none of them ever do, some people will still blindly believe my bullshit and the ensuing cacophony of idiotic debate promoted by followers and exploiters of my bullshit storyline will ensure that I can keep diddling kiddies at will. Distraction is the name of the game, babies.
Conspiracy theory will always have its appeal as entertainment because everyone likes to play detective, everyone likes to assemble clues and create a narrative. In my thesis, I used Benjamin Schmidt’s excellent description from his article, “Detectives in a Crazy World: Conspiracy Theory from Schiller to Pynchon via Lacan and Luhmann”:
Detective stories and conspiracy literature, i.e. narratives of crime detection and narratives of conspiracy uncovering, have this in common: 1) They are stories about how to arrive at a coherent narrative (account of the crime, conspiracy theory) from an incoherent, chaotic, contingent situation via symptomatic hermeneutics. 2) The protagonist (detective, conspiracy theorist) is confronted with the situation of a rupture of order, and s/he is or feels called upon to restore order. 3) An analogy is presupposed between the coherence of the final narrative, the identification of the original agent (murderer, conspirator), and the restoration of order.
In this way, the conspiracy theorist can entertain the idea that he or she (ze?) is the hero of the story, and at any moment, they will receive a mysterious package, or a phone call, or some other message, confirming their suspicions and opening up a real-life adventure in which they can cast themselves as the hero who saw what no one else could see. “I told you there was a shark out there, and you refused to close the beach!” And thus, their otherwise empty life achieves vindication.
However, we cannot allow this aspect to convince us that all conspiracy theories are pure fantasy. Conspiracy theory is fun, but it can also be useful in actually protecting our freedoms and helping us safeguard against actual autocratic shenanigans. You just have to be sure to keep one foot grounded in reality, check your sources, and hold them accountable for any missed predictions (Q is nothing but missed predictions). And, as always, watch what you say to your new AI buddy — you never know who might be listening.
[Did you read all of this? Wow, you must be as bored as I am! Thanks for your patronage, and feel free to drop a line. I’m always waiting for my own real-world vindication story to unfold! ;)]